Cowboys Must Fix Defense Before Any Thoughts of Super Bowl Contention

Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants
Dallas Cowboys v New York Giants / Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Dallas Cowboys have finally committed to Dak Prescott in the long-term, inking the former fourth-round pick to a massive four-year contract extension earlier this week. A topic of constant discussion for nearly two years, the team and player can now focus on winning football games without the underlying tension of contract negotiations. The deal and its implications have been the biggest talking point all week, and of course if Prescott can take the Cowboys to the top of the mountain and win a Super Bowl.

He very well might. Prescott is a good-to-great quarterback and led Dallas to the playoffs in two of his first four full seasons in the NFL, not including last year's injury-shortened campaign. He only has one playoff win under his belt, but at 27-years-old has plenty of good years ahead of him and looked fantastic before getting hurt in 2020. But football, as we all know, is a team game. Despite what Michael Irvin thinks, Prescott has not reached Tom Brady-level of ability and won't be able to drag his team to a championship without help. The Cowboys went 6-10 without Prescott last season and clearly have a lot of work to do, specifically on the defensive side of the ball, before they can start thinking about competing for a title.

The issue is that fixing a defense quickly is not an easy task. Right now, the Cowboys have one good defender in their $100 million defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, two decent (if injury-prone) linebackers in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, and a young cornerback grouping with potential. The defense gave up 386 yards per game (28th in the NFL) and somehow gave up 158 rushing yards per game (31st in the NFL) in 2020. They recorded 10 games where they gave up over 100 rushing yards.

They were actually pretty good defending the pass with the 11th-best pass defense in the league in yards per game. One should take that number with a grain of salt, however, and take into account that Dallas played in what was by far the worst division in the league last year. Managing to limit a broken Carson Wentz or Daniel Jones is not really worth celebrating. Against teams with above-average quarterbacks, the Cowboys were terrible, giving up over 400 yards passing to Baker Mayfield, Russell Wilson, and Matt Ryan, respectively, in a three-week stretch. Next season does not bring much relief as Dallas faces off against the AFC West and the Patrick Mahomes/Justin Herbert/Derek Carr trio.

The biggest hole Dallas needs to fill as soon as possible is at safety. A good safety can bring a defense together, especially in the pass game, directing traffic on the back end while ensuring nothing gets over the top. The Cowboys clearly have known this for a while and reportedly tried to acquire Earl Thomas and Jamal Adams when each was put on the trade block by their original teams in recent seasons. The next step is finding a run-stuffer on the defensive line and acquiring the linebacker depth that they were plainly lacking last season. They don't need superstars. They just need solid guys.

There is a path to do that this offseason, and Stephen Jones knows how to build a good defense. The Cowboys were awful this year, but were 11th in yards per game last season and ranked in the top-10 in that metric in two of the last four seasons. Dallas created $17 million in cap space by restructuring contracts yesterday and hold the No. 10 overall pick in the draft. Drafting an edge rusher to take some attention off Lawrence and stacking the secondary with steady vets could feasibly catapult the defense back to league-average, which is all they really need if Prescott plays like the star he was in the opening games of last season. The free agent market should be stacked with mid-tier veterans, victims of the cap crunch this season, looking for a new home on a competitive team.

That's a lot that has to go right in the span of one offseason, admittedly. And the defense was worse than the statistics suggest if you watched a minute of Cowboys football last year. But while a great offense is more valuable than a great defense nowadays, bad defenses do not win championships.

The four teams who made it to the championship round of this year's playoffs all ranked in the top half of the league in yards allowed per game. They all boasted studs like Tre'Davious White and Tyrann Mathieu and Za'Darius Smith and Devin White. Dallas needs to get to that level to have a prayer of a deep playoff run, much less a Super Bowl. Prescott now has four years on his deal. The clock is ticking, and fixing the defense begins now.